Examining blasphemy: international law, national security and the U.S. foreign policy regarding free speech.

AuthorJohnson, Eric M.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. BLASPHEMY AND THE INSTABILITY IT CREATES A. What is Blasphemy? B. The Middle East and North African States Strategic Importance to the U.S. and the U.S. Interest in Stability C. Instability Caused by Alleged Blasphemy D. U.S. Foreign Policy on the Freedom of Expression E. Defamation of Religion Resolutions III. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN INTERNATIONAL LAW A. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights B. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights C. Hate Speech IV. BLASPHEMY AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES A. United States of America B. Tunisia C. Egypt D. Pakistan V. DOES THE UNITED STATES' APPROACH TO FREE EXPRESSION PROMOTION ADVANCE ITS FOREIGN POLICY INTERESTS? A. U.S. Policy on the Anti-Defamation Proposals B. Does the U.S. Policy Make Sense? C. Should There be Limits on What Can be Posted in One Country but Broadcast Internationally? D. Would a Different Approach to Free Expression Better Serve U.S. National Security? VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    In June 2012, a fourteen minute trailer to a movie titled "Innocence of Muslims" was posted to YouTube. (1) Though it received virtually no notice when initially made public, less than two months (2) later it was at the epicenter of a global controversy, a cause for terrorist groups seeking to target Western institutions, and the centerpiece of the debate over blasphemous speech and its legal protection. The movie, made in the United States with obvious low production values, makes numerous outlandish claims the Prophet Mohammed is (among other things) a homosexual, a child molester, and bloodthirsty. (3) This set off a series of anti-American riots throughout the Islamic world. (4)

    Shortly after the demonstrations and riots in the Islamic world began over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie, a French satirical magazine published several cartoons depicting what is considered to be the Prophet Mohammed naked. (5) The director of the magazine pushed back against claims he was adding to the unrest, saying the magazine is "not really fueling the fire" but instead "comment[ing] [on] the news in a satirical way." (6)

    Both of these events bring to a head the conflict between a fundamental human right, the freedom of expression, and blasphemy. United States law maintains a liberal protection of the right to freedom of expression protected in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. (7) International law, as delineated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), allows more restrictions to be placed on this right. (8) When should, if ever, the right to express opinions be curtailed in order to prevent blasphemy or the defamation of a religion? Many followers of the Islamic faith take blasphemy, or the defamation of their religion, seriously and personally, and react violently when the west, in their mind, defames Islam. This blasphemous speech, or speech which defames religions, particularly Islam, is a source of global instability that can negatively affect the foreign policy interests and/or national security of the United States. In spite of this risk, the United States should continue to advocate for its liberal interpretation of the freedom of expression. There have been multiple incidents in the recent past where people have done things considered to be blasphemous in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, violent riots have occurred across this strategically important region. Even though an anti-defamation of religion resolution may increase stability in this volatile region, the United States should not alter its current foreign policy. International law on the freedom of expression does not allow for restrictions on expression for this purpose, and the small benefit the United States would see is not enough to justify restricting the freedom of expression.

    Part II of this article will attempt to define blasphemy and discuss blasphemy and defamation of religion as a source of instability, discussing examples of riots that have occurred after incidences of blasphemy across the world. It will also discuss the current U.S. foreign policy on the freedom of expression, and attempts to limit that right by prohibiting speech that defames religions. Part III will discuss the freedom of expression in international law, specifically discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. Part IV will compare and contrast the freedom of expression and blasphemy laws in the United States, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Part V will discuss the U.S. approach to free expression and whether that approach advances our foreign policy interests. Part VI will conclude this article.


    Blasphemy and instability are inextricably linked together. Whether it is through purposeful action or accidental, when an action of someone from the western democracies is considered to be blasphemous to Islam, the Quran, or the Prophet Mohammed, violence has resulted. (9) A. What is Blasphemy?

    This is a simple question without a simple answer. Blasphemy is defined in dictionaries as "the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God," (10) or the "impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things." (11) But the definition in the legal context is much more difficult. There is no clear, overarching legal definition of blasphemy. (12) Blasphemy means something different in every legal system in the world. (13) In fact, there is no common practice regarding blasphemy crimes in the Islamic states. (14) The crime of blasphemy has developed individually in each state based on varying practices that are usually unwritten and subjective. (15) Blasphemous words or acts have been the start of several riots in the past; as many Muslims feel an emotional attachment to the Prophet Mohammed and feel the need to protect him. (16)

    Each religion may have a different interpretation of what is blasphemous. The question of what is blasphemy in Islam is not an easy one to answer. This is because the Quran does not define blasphemy. (17) One form of alleged blasphemy is any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. (18) Some scholars have used the "hadiths," which are collections of sayings attributed to Mohammed, to create a definition of blasphemy; but even in the hadiths the definition depends on a person's interpretation. (19) The same holds true for the punishment of blasphemy. Neither the Quran nor the hadiths directly discuss the punishment for blasphemy. (20) The proponents of the strict Sharia religious law will argue that the punishment for blasphemy should be death. (21) However, at least one Islamic scholar has argued the Quran shows that no corporal punishment should be handed out for blasphemy and current Muslims go against the teachings of the Quran. (22)

    The concept of blasphemy has currently taken on the label of "defamation of religion" when there have been attempts to limit freedom of expression in the international arena. (23) This could be considered a potentially larger concept as "defamation of religion" is not necessarily as tied to the insult of God or a sacred object/person as blasphemy.

    1. The Middle East and North African States Strategic Importance to the U.S. and the U.S. Interest in Stability

      To this day, the Islamic states, particularly the Middle East and North Africa, remain of vital strategic importance to the United States. As such, the United States foreign policy focus for at least the last decade has been on that region as the United States strives for stability, and recently democracy, in the region. The United States focus has mainly been due to the need for oil, to secure both access and a low price. (24) The United States has long had an oil addiction, and that need has been satiated mainly by foreign oil. Nearly sixty percent of the world's oil can be found in the Middle East region. (25) This is a region that has been, and remains, unstable and often dangerous. (26)

      American national security interests were linked to the Middle East in 1980 by President Carter, with the announcement of what has become known as the Carter Doctrine. (27) Through the Carter Doctrine, which has been enforced by every president since, the United States committed itself to using any means, including military force, to prevent outside forces from gaining control of the Middle East region. (28) The Carter Doctrine provided the rationale for the use of military force on numerous occasions in order to protect these interests. These include: United States assistance to Afghanistan during their war with the Soviet Union (1979-1989), Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Somalia intervention (1992-1993), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2010), and Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-present). (29) This doctrine has continually linked our interests, including foreign aid, diplomatic energy, and treasure, both in the form of money and lives, to this region for over thirty years. (30)

      Oil is not the only American interest in the region, or the only reason that the region is strategically important. The region is also home to most of the important threats that the United States is facing today. (31) Many experts in this region have stated that the threat Iran poses is the biggest security risk currently facing the United States. (32) Other states in the region are of great strategic importance to the United States as well. Pakistan plays an extremely important strategic role in the region for the United States. Pakistan has a role in counter-terrorism, access to oil and regional political stability. (33) Egypt has long been the bellwether for the Middle East and North Africa, with a moderate Egypt the key to peace and stability in the region. (34) Tunisia's importance stems from their position as the "cradle of [the] Arab Spring," and important as to how the Arab Spring revolution continues to develop in that nation. (35)

      This region is also the home of...

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